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Three of America's finest storytellers are featured at a new exhibition of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. "Telling Stories" is the title of the show and here's the subtitle: "Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg." Seems the filmmakers are great fans of illustrator Norman Rockwell, and their collections include covers that Rockwell painted for the "Saturday Evening Post" magazine from 1916 to 1963.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has our story.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Norman Rockwell, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, connection? They're all commercial artists, mythmakers, dream makers. They all love heroes, valor, humor; they're part of popular culture, they love their country and images.

Did you ever compete for a picture?

Mr. GEORGE LUCAS (Filmmaker): We usually talk beforehand and we decide who gets it.

Mr. STEVEN SPIELBERG (Filmmaker): It's whoever wants it the most.

Mr. LUCAS: We've spent our whole life like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUCAS: You know, we haven't competed on anything.

Mr. SPIELBERG: No, Uh-uh.

STAMBERG: Great friends these men who gave us "Star Wars," "Jaws," "Indiana Jones," "Close Encounters," "Schindler's List," "E.T.," I'm running out of time; friends who've worked, together or apart, since the 1960s.

Mr. LUCAS: We came, sort of, from the film school generation.

STAMBERG: This is George Lucas.

Mr. LUCAS: And so we were all sort of partners in trying to break into the movie business, we all helped each other.

STAMBERG: The friendship carries over into what they collect. Lucas started buying Norman Rockwell illustrations as soon as he could afford them. Spielberg caught the Rockwell bug, too. Both men grew up with "Saturday Evening Post" covers, which Norman Rockwell painted in oil. Deeply American iconic images: a family Thanksgiving, a kid at the dentist or doing homework with his dad, or raking leaves with his grandfather, or watching a pretty mother primp at the dressing table

Mr. SPIELBERG: He wasn't cynical. He wasn't mean-spirited.

Mr. LUCAS: But he captured the American ideal of what we wanted to believe we were, and we weren't any better then than we are now. But by having the ideal out there - what we aspired to - it made it so that we could try to be more than what we were.

STAMBERG: Lucas and Spielberg have Norman Rockwell pictures all over their homes, offices and in storage. This is the first time they've seen 57 of them together in one place. Many of their Rockwells involve children, wonder, awe, the power of imagination.

George Lucas bought the "Shadow Artist," a 1920 magazine illustration, because it hit so close to home.

Mr. LUCAS: Sort of the beginning of movies. It's the using light and shadow to tell a story, which is what we do for a living.

STAMBERG: Rockwell paints a white-bearded gentleman standing in profile against a wall that's bathed in light from an oil lamp. His raised arms cast shadows.

Dr. BETSY BROUN (Director, America Art Museum): And he's making a little animal with his fingers.

STAMBERG: A shadow dog with open mouth and perky ears. And, says Betsy Broun, Director of the America Art Museum, the shadow artist has an audience.

Dr. BROUN: There are three small children, absolutely rapt, in the foreground. We only see the backs of their heads. The girl has a bright red bow; the middle boy has red suspenders; the boy on the right has hair going in different directions and great big ears.

STAMBERG: And all of them are mesmerized by the magic the old man is making with his shadow.

Dr. BROUN: That magic is at the heart of every movie.

STAMBERG: Now, this to me, although it belongs to Steven Spielberg, looks like a scene out of "American Graffiti."

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of movie, "American Graffiti")

Mr. RICHARD DREYFUSS (Actor): (as Curt) I just saw a vision. I saw a goddess. Come on, you got to catch up to her.

Mr. SPIELBERG: It certainly could be. I mean that certainly could be Richard Dreyfuss looking at Suzanne Somers down there, although she didn't have a convertible.

STAMBERG: Rockwell's painting, a 1941 Saturday Evening Post magazine cover, is called "The Flirts." A pretty blond, her convertible down, waits at a stoplight. Next to her, hanging out of the window of an immense turquoise truck, the beefy driver holds a daisy.

Dr. VIRGINIA MECKLENBURG (Curator): He's picking the petals off it. And, you know, loves me, loves me not.

STAMBERG: Virginia Mecklenburg is curator of this Rockwell show.

Dr. MECKLENBURG: He looks at her with a nice smile on his face.

STAMBERG: Very sweet, he's not leery. It's not lascivious.

Dr. MECKLENBURG: He's not leery. He's just being a guy.

STAMBERG: But the pretty blond stares snootily straight ahead, won't give the driver the time of day. It's funny in a gentle way, a Norman Rockwell way, telling a story in a single frame. He had to, to grab a reader's attention at newsstands crowded with magazine covers. That may be why you do not really linger in front of these paintings as you would with Monet or a Picasso.

There's nothing to puzzle out in Rockwell, no mysteries to be solved. Rockwells are quick shots, achieved with great skill.

Again, Betsy Broun.

Dr. BROUN: There is a detail, and a care, and an attention to the way he puts the picture together.

STAMBERG: Rockwell's pictures, like those of his collectors, Lucas and Spielberg, were carefully cast.

Dr. BROUN: He would cast the picture by interviewing friends and neighbors until he found someone who looked just right.

STAMBERG: Then the artist hunted down just the right costumes for them to wear: the little girl's red ribbon, the blonde's white hat; and the proper props - a 1930s radio microphone, an Underwood typewriter, a rake.

He gathered his costumed cast together and a photograph was taken. Then, back in his studio, Norman Rockwell created his painting.

No wonder movie Lucas and Spielberg would see, in him, a kindred spirit, although Rockwell gets his knocks - too saccharine, sentimental, soppy.

Mr. LUCAS: In the art world it's called corny and naive.

STAMBERG: George Lucas.

Mr. LUCAS: But, you know, you take the corny and naive out of the American spirit, out of these images, and you end up with a lot of what is going on today - which is the same ideas, only without any of the heart, without any human compassion.

STAMBERG: Norman Rockwell painted the world as he wanted it to be. Today, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas find Rockwell telling stories we need, now, perhaps more than ever.

Their Rockwell collection is at Smithsonian American Art Museum until early January and will not travel.

In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

KELLY: And you can see a gallery of paintings by Norman Rockwell on our Web site at NPR.org.

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